David Ragan has been just about everywhere in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He’s raced for one of the sport’s legendary teams, pairing with Roush Fenway Racing from his rookie season in 2007 until 2011. Then, in 2012 through the end of 2014, Ragan drove for a smaller team in Front Row Motorsports, entering rebuilding mode while coming through with an improbable win at Talladega.
In 2015, Ragan had his busiest season to date, driving for FRM, Joe Gibbs Racing while subbing for an injured Kyle Busch then Michael Waltrip Racing for the remainder of the season before the team closed down at the end of the year. Left without a ride, Ragan joined BK Racing at the beginning of the 2016 season and now drives the No. 23 Dr Pepper Toyota, joining teammate Matt DiBenedetto as he once again attempts to build up a smaller team into a Chase contender. In all that time on the circuit, though Ragan has just two victories: one with RFR at Daytona in 2011 and that upset victory with FRM at Talladega.
Other than those two wins Ragan has achieved limited success. He has 15 career top 5s and 36 career top 10s in 337 starts. While those certainly aren’t terrible statistics, it was the lack of tangible improvement within RFR that ultimately led to his departure and having to settle for otherwise much less competitive organizations.
Nonetheless, Ragan approaches every race with a good attitude that only experience and maturity can bring. He knows he’s no longer with a powerhouse race team but remains optimistic about the future. Summer Bedgood sat down with Ragan last weekend in Kansas Speedway to ask about his career to date, his thoughts on the sport, and NASCAR as a whole.
Summer Bedgood, Frontstretch: The Kansas Speedway weekend has a two-day show vs. the traditional three-day show. Do you prefer this type of schedule or do you prefer the more traditional Friday-Saturday-Sunday weekend?
As a husband and a father, I want to be home as much as I can so I prefer the two-day shows. I think as an industry and even as a race fan, I think two-day shows make a lot of sense. You get everybody in, it’s action-packed, there’s not a lot of downtime, you race and you’re out of there.
So I would prefer Saturday-Sunday weekend races, but from our team’s perspective, we need three days of practice and then the race. But I would like to see us run two-day shows all season.
Bedgood: What were your goals at the beginning of this season and where are you with meeting those so far in 2016?
Our goals for BK Racing were to improve from 2014 and to show some progress toward being a more competitive and consistent car. We’re on track. We’ve shown that progress and it hasn’t been easy. We have a better average starting position, a better average finishing position, a better running position for both myself and Matt (DiBenedetto) compared to this BK team last year.
So we are on track. We want to continue to get better. Each weekend is a new set of challenges as we head to tracks for the first time this season… but we’re on track. We’re working hard, having a lot of fun. We have some good races under our belt.
Bedgood: What are some of the things that you’ve done to make those gains?
Updating the inventory that BK Racing had. The race inventory was the first thing that allowed us to get more competitive from an aero standpoint, from a race car standpoint. We’ve brought on some good people at BK Racing and we’ve raised some good money with new partners and these sponsors this year.
All of it is just scratching the surface. We’ve got a long ways to go, but our race cars are better, our people are better, and we’ve been able to bring some new sponsors on board which helps fund us this year.
Bedgood: Did the rules package change hinder that at all or did it help you guys?
I don’t think it really had any effect. It was the same for everyone, so it’s tough to judge how it affects one more than the other. The rules package is a good direction and I’m happy that it went that way and looking forward to getting more downforce off these cars.
Bedgood: Your team recently announced the addition of BUBBA Burgers, particularly around the Charlotte races and Memorial Day weekend. What’s your excitement level with having a Memorial Day paint scheme and having them on board?
Everything about BUBBA Burgers and Memorial Day weekend and drinking Dr Pepper just makes sense. The campfire, the evenings grilling some hamburgers, and having some fun with your friends and family on Memorial Day weekend. That was a great opportunity that came about. BUBBA Burgers has been involved with this sport for a long time. I’m a fan of BUBBA Burgers. My wife and I, we love their turkey burgers and my kids love all those things. So it was a great partnership for the BK Racing team, and certainly around Memorial Day weekend to say thank you to all of our armed services around the country. It’s a good time to talk about NASCAR racing and grilling out.
Bedgood: Do you have any role in the design of the paint scheme?
I didn’t for this one. I assume the BUBBA Burgers folks had some ideas and we have a creative staff that does all our decals and paint schemes. So they came up with it. The first look that I got, it looked great. I was very happy that they did a good job.
Bedgood: There were a few changes made to the schedule for the 2017 season. Texas spring race is moving to a day race, the Talladega and Kansas Chase races are switching, there is one less off week – what’s your general reaction to the 2017 schedule changes?
David Ragan: I don’t think the schedule changes mean a whole lot. We’re running the same tracks, the same amount of races at roughly the same point of the year, so I don’t think it will make any difference from my perspective.
From a big picture, I think we have too many races. I don’t have the answer for how to trim back, but I think about a 30-race schedule is ideal – 20 races and then a 10-race Chase. I don’t know how you get there.
I think that the 600-mile race at Charlotte, the Daytona 500, are some staple races in our sport’s history that should stay the same. The Southern 500. I think most races should be no more than 400 miles, preferably around 300 – 300-400 miles. I think cutting the races back would be a good thing for our sport and fans. Those are kind of my thoughts on the general schedule and the amount of races that we have.
Bedgood: So shorter races and a shorter season?
Ragan: Yep, I think so.
Bedgood: Is there anything you wish fans knew about teams like yours and what separates you from the other side of the garage? Is there anything fans don’t “get” about the position you guys are in?
Ragan: Our NASCAR fans are really educated. I think our fans are more educated about our sports than some of the other sports. They understand the team dynamic, the sponsorship dynamic playing a big role and how competitive the car is. Obviously our manufacturers that we drive for. They are very loyal to the Toyota brand, Chevrolet, or Ford brand.
I think our fans are outstanding when it comes to knowledge and how they’re involved in our sport. But as far as the smaller teams, I think we’ve done a good job of telling our story. I think that the big teams have been established. They’ve been around. They have the partners that have allowed them to spend the big dollars to be competitive. I think when you come into this sport, you have your growing pains for a few years. I think we’ve done a nice job of telling our story with the new teams that have come into the garage the last 5-7 years like Tommy Baldwin Racing, BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports and Harry Scott Motorsports and some of the teams like that that are going to be championship caliber in 20 years but it’s going to take a little bit of time.
I think that they get it, though, in general. It’s something that is just a part of coming in and paying your dues, and how to make good decisions to try and be a more competitive and consistent team on and off the racetrack.
Bedgood: All those teams you just mentioned that are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively new to the sport, I know you wouldn’t share information from a competitive standpoint but do you do things to help elevate one another?
Ragan: Absolutely! Absolutely, we work together off the track. I think our car owners speak very regularly. I think that’s where the thought of the RTA came about with the Race Team Alliance, that they all have similar struggles and they have some good ideas, and if we can work together, then we can make this a better sport for everyone. Even though we compete against each other on Sunday afternoons, we’re all in this together so no one needs to be peeing in it. We absolutely talk very often.
Bedgood: Do you guys feel like you are well-represented with the RTA?
Ragan: Yeah, I think so.
Bedgood: You’ve had quite a career – many ups, many downs. Is there anything you would have done differently or think about sometimes?
Ragan: During my career, I worked hard. I’ve been focused and I did the best that I could with the knowledge I had at that time. I’ve obviously gotten a lot smarter over the last 10 years. With the knowledge that I have today, I would certainly do things differently. At the time when I was 21 years old or 22 years old, I was doing the best I could with what I knew.
There are a few things on and off the track that I would like to have tweaked. I think everybody would, because if you’re not any smarter today than you were 10 years ago, then something’s not right.
I don’t have any regrets, though. I’ve had a lot of fun. Met a lot of great people. I’ve done some great things that a lot of people would die for. I’m grateful for the chance that I’ve had to be a Sprint Cup Series driver for almost 10 years now.
I don’t have the championships and I don’t have the race wins that I would like to have, but I don’t think anyone is satisfied. I don’t think Jimmie Johnson can look back and say, “Hey, I’m happy right now, I don’t want to win another race.” Anybody always wants to win more and do better. That’s natural instinct that a driver person has.
Bedgood: Your best statistics over your entire career are at restrictor plate tracks. Why do you think that is?
Ragan: I’ve had good race cars to drive restrictor plate tracks. I’ve been a little lucky at restrictor plate tracks. The first half of my career I’ve been really good and lucky. The last couple of years I’ve wrecked and had poor finishes. That’s just the way the seasons turn.
I don’t know. I enjoy going to Daytona and Talladega so I have a good opinion or a good open mindset when I go to those tracks. But a lot of it has to do with being a little lucky and driving good race cars. I’ve had my share of good and bad luck but I do enjoy going to those tracks a few times a year.
Bedgood: There has been a lot of conversation this week about the number of wrecks and cars going airborne, especially at Talladega. Is that something you’re concerned about moving forward?
Ragan: I’m not really concerned about it as a driver. I think that is what Talladega and Daytona produce. We’ve been talking about the wrecks at Daytona and Talladega for 30 years and the only thing that’s been consistent in those 30 years are the racetracks. Cars have changed, tires have changed, engines have changed, the drivers have changed, the spotters have changed – everything’s changed except the racetrack. So as long as we have 2.5-mile racetracks on our schedule with that kind of banking, we’re always going to have high speeds and the possibility to have some major wrecks.
But I feel very safe in the car and I don’t have any problems with speedway racing.
Bedgood: So you’re not one of these people who thinks that something should be done about the racing or wrecks at those tracks?
Ragan: No, the element of surprise and danger makes our sport good. If we were all to go out there and drive at 40 mph and have Styrofoam surrounding our entire car and have air conditioners and be afraid to touch one another, that would be pretty boring.
So I think the element of danger is what has always made Talladega and Daytona exciting. If you can’t live with a little bit of that, then you probably shouldn’t be a driver.
Bedgood: To date, your best finish is 21st and you’ve been average about a 28th-place finish. What do you think your chances are of improving on that through the rest of the season?
Ragan: I think our chances are good. I think that we’ve got to stay focused and try to make these race cars a little better. I think we’ll be a little
more competitive when we get to these race cars for the second time in the second half of the season. We’ve just got to get better.
I think we had a short offseason with BK Racing acquiring these new race cars. I was a new driver on the scene, some new people on the scene, so we’ve done a lot of improving in a short amount of time. If we can continue to improve at the pace we’ve been, we should be able to better those performances the second half of the year.
And we haven’t had good luck on the No. 23 team. Both speedways, we’ve had poor finishes. We’ve already got a couple DNFs. We’ve already blew up a few engines. We’ve already been involved in a few accidents.
Usually, you don’t have that kind of adversity over a whole year, much less in the first 10 to 12 races. We’ve had a lot of rotten luck. Maybe that will change. We’ve had decent race cars at about every race this year.
Bedgood: So you don’t feel like your statistics match what your performance has been?
Ragan: Our statistics should be a little better than that. We have run better than our average finishing position. You throw in a few three or four 35ths and 40ths, that brings that down quite a bit.
Bedgood: A lot of people are still talking about Matt’s Bristol finish and his reaction. Would you have had the same reaction in his position as far as the overflowing of emotion? Is that your style?
Ragan: No, I’m an even kilter kind of guy. I don’t get too happy and I don’t get too mad. Some people punch mirrors and throw their steering wheel, kick the side of the door, and curse their crew chiefs out when they have bad days. I don’t do that.
Also, when I win or have a good day, I don’t get too excited. I don’t know why that is. That’s nothing bad against people who do get excited or people who do get mad, but I’m pretty easygoing. I don’t get too mad, I don’t get too happy.
Bedgood: Following the Talladega and Daytona weekends, we heard a lot about the Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Amelia” restrictor plate car. Do you name your vehicles – race car or otherwise – and do you have those kinds of attachments to your vehicles?
Ragan: Not to my race cars. The only car I’ve ever named is my 1964 Ford Fairlane. Its name is MD. If you ever watched The Andy Griffith Show you’d know why it’s called MB. Otherwise, I’ve never named a race car.
Bedgood: And not personal cars either other than the one you just mentioned?
Ragan: Nope, just my Andy Griffith car. I don’t know; I’ve never been into that. I love cars. I’ve got a lot of classic cars in my garage and I’ve built race cars over the years. There’s nothing that gets me more excited than a brand new fabricated race car that looks really, really pretty. I enjoy working with old cars and I grew up being a mechanic on my own race car. But, no, I’ve just never named them. I don’t get into stuff like that, I guess.
Bedgood: And back to this new rules package, just in general, are you in consensus with everyone else that this has been a good thing?
Ragan: It’s been great! Yeah, it’s been a great start to the season. Goodyear has been able to bring some good tires. The cars are still fast but they fall off during a run. I think the aero advantage of being up front is still there but it’s not as dramatic as what it’s been in years past. I think the rules package we have now is really good and I’m hoping it’s something that we can continue to massage on and tweak over time and it can only get better.
Bedgood: And would tweaking it meaning reducing the downforce even more?
Ragan: Not necessarily reduce it, but keep it in check. From a race team’s point of view, it’s their job to make more downforce. Every year, we make more downforce, more downforce, more downforce. I would believe that by the end of this year if no rule changes are made, we’ll have more downforce this year than we had last year with the lower downforce package. These race teams are very smart and so NASCAR has to react from what the race teams do. We are reducing it, but in the big picture, we’re really not because the race teams continue to get better.